Of the most recent round of Premier League fixtures, it was not the star-studded clash of Arsenal vs Liverpool which most appealed to the hearts and minds of the football world. Nor was it the admittedly less-glistening Monday night spectacle of Huddersfield vs Fulham. Instead, fans and pundits alike were converging upon the Cardiff City Stadium, where Leicester had travelled to play their first competitive fixture since the tragic death of their owner Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha seven days previously.
Arriving at the stadium, I wasn’t greeted by the usual rowdy atmosphere of my fellow season ticket holders. The two elderly blokes who sit in the row behind me did not, as was tradition, harp on about their hatred of the away team of that particular match as the players warmed up in front of us. Today was different. The thoughts of everyone in the stadium, from the most docile of supporters in the family stand to the hardcore shouters, were on a man who transformed the fortunes of a football club and did so much for its wider community.
Eulogies from around the global football community have poured in for the Thai business mogul who showed that he was infinitely more than the usual uber-wealthy foreign football owner. Srivaddhanaprabha didn’t just transform Leicester from relegation favourites to Premier League champions and Champions League quarter-finalists in the space of two years, he also donated £2 million to a local children’s hospital and a further million to the university’s medical department. This is the legacy of a man who turned a cash-strapped, mid-table Championship side into Premier League regulars and who positively impacted the lives of thousands, a feat far greater than any sporting accomplishment.
His impact could most certainly be felt in the stadium last Saturday. Cardiff owner and friend of Srivaddhanaprabha, Vincent Tan, dedicated the start of the match programme to his Thai counterpart. The programme itself was toned down in design, simply featuring both club’s badges in front of a dark background. Before kick-off, a flag bearing the message “RIP Vichai” was passed from one end of the stadium over to the other end towards the Leicester fans, shortly followed by an emotional and well observed minute’s silence. The Leicester fans wore t-shirts reading “The Boss” accompanied by a picture of Srivaddhanaprabha, and when Demarai Gray brought the Foxes a 1-0 lead early in the second half, the winger ran to the ecstatic away fans to reveal a similar message to ‘The Boss’ under his shirt – “For Khun Vichai”. Where I was sat, some of the Cardiff fans began to applaud.
It would not have been unexpected if Leicester ended up unable to make their mark on the game after lengthy media scrutiny over the previous week. But the 2016 Premier League champions had the better of a game of relatively few chances throughout. They channelled the emotional energy of losing the man who helped earn much of the squad a Premier League winner’s medal into a disciplined and composed performance against a beleaguered Cardiff side. As a Cardiff fan, I have seen some awful decisions made by our owner Vincent Tan since he bought out the club in May 2010. Fiascos such as our one-time transfer policy of exclusively buying players who had the number eight, a symbol of luck in Malaysia, in their birth date or the scandalous and offensive rebranding of The Bluebirds’ kit and badge from blue to red spring to mind. It was clear, both to Cardiff fans and the football world at large, that foreign owners imposing their own culture on clubs with centuries of local tradition was going to lead to alienation.
Tan last week said of Srivaddhanaprabha: “I considered him a friend and somebody for whom I had the utmost respect and admiration.” It may be no coincidence, then, that right as the Leicester owner began to see success, Tan’s ownership strategy at Cardiff began to change for the better. He publicly apologised for his misgivings, reverted back to blue and since 2014 has converted 183 million pounds of Cardiff’s debt into equity. This season, Cardiff are back in the Premier League with the kit in blue and the finances in the black. It wasn’t too long ago when both were in red. Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha has set the benchmark for how football ownership should be done in the Premier League using sustainable development, smart and ambitious investment married with a respect for the history of the club and an appreciation of the wider community of the city as a whole. Here’s to hoping that the likes of Stan Kroenke at Arsenal and Mike Ashley at Newcastle will learn a thing or two from him.